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Log-structured KV database optimized for indexing and querying
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JFDB is experimental technology. There may be breaking changes to the API. There may be serious bugs (none currently known, please report if you discover any). Use at your own risk.

What is it?

JFDB is a database library written in C, but designed primarily for use in Erlang. That is to say, the interface and architecture were designed to match the impedance of Erlang, and also to fill a missing sweet spot in the Erlang ecosystem. That is not to say that it isn’t useful in other languages, or that the C interface is not usable.

JFDB aims to provide:

  • Searchability

  • Flexibility

  • Persistence

  • Performance

  • Convenience

  • Fault tolerance

The conceptual model for JFDB looks something like this:

 primary => value <= [indices, ...]

This is the atomic primitive unit of storage provided by JFDB. All the keys (primary and indices) are compressed using an adaptive trie implementation called a JFT.

JFDB allows you to lookup values by primary key. A conceptual model for data retrieval looks something like:

 primary => value | undefined

Or you may search using logical combinations of the index keys, e.g.:

 {any, [i1, {all, [i2, i3]}, {but, [i4, i5]}]} => [v1, v2, ...]

In addition, JFDB can do magical things with key prefixes (see How do I use it?).

JFDB never mutates data in place, so in a certain sense it cannot be corrupted. If you are familiar with log-structured merge trees, you could think of JFDB as a log-structured merge trie. Compared to something like LevelDB however, JFDB has much less overhead.

A database instance is extremely lightweight, consisting of 2 (sometimes 3) files. For a better understanding of how it works, please read How does it work?

How do I use it?

First off, you need to get the code and build it:

$ make

From here on out, we’ll be talking mainly about the Erlang bindings, not the C API or command-line interface. First, make sure everything works properly:

$ cd erlang
$ make tests
To use as a dependency in an project, add something like:
dep_jfdb = git
ERL_LIBS = $(DEPS_DIR)/jfdb/erlang

Opening and closing databases

Let’s open an Erlang shell:

$ erl -pa ebin

Now, we can create a db named basic-db in the current directory:

> DB = jfdb:open("basic-db").

This will create a file named basic-db.keys and another named basic-db.vals. Opening a database always creates these files if they do not exist.

The database will be closed when the term is garbage collected, however there are some drawbacks to relying on this.

Only ever open one instance of a particular db (i.e. the same path) at a time. Seriously, this is very important. If you fail to adhere to this, undefined behavior can occur, including data corruption and/or VM crashes. If you plan to reopen a database, do not rely on it automatically closing.

To explicitly close the database yourself, just do:

> DB = jfdb:close(DB).
Most functions (except for retrieval operations) return DB = {jfdb, <<>>} | {error, Reason}. In the case of close here, we use the match to assert that nothing goes wrong during the operation.

Once you call close on a database, you should not use it again in any other operation.

Finally, we can also open a database temporarily. That means, the database files will be deleted when it is closed. This is primarily useful for things like testing, however there may be other use cases in the future. To do that:

> DB = jfdb:open("tmp-db", [temporary]).

Keys, values, and paths

Now that we know how to open and close a db, let’s free our variable binding, and open it again:

> f(DB), DB = jfdb:open("basic-db").

Let’s try storing a simple key and value:

> DB = jfdb:assign(DB, key, val).

Then we can read it back:

> val = jfdb:lookup(DB, key).

And we can look at all our keys:

> [<<"k">>, <<"key">>] = jfdb:keys(DB).

You probably noticed that upon reading, our keys became binaries. That’s because any keys we give are implicitly mapped to binaries.

You may have also noticed that the keys are sorted. That is not a coincidence: keys are always prefix compressed and ordered. On the other hand, values are always returned exactly as they are specified.

There are actually two levels of interface provided by the Erlang bindings. We’re mainly dealing with the higher level one, which supports things like key paths and nested objects. You may also use the lower level interface, which deals only with the raw binary data. That interface is not recommended, though that is the only option available in C. The keys function is the only raw function we will mention, from now on we will deal only with paths.

Getting a little fancier, let’s try using a path instead of a simple key. We’ll also store a slightly more complex value:

> DB = jfdb:assign(DB, [path, to, a], #{a => <<"ok">>}).
> DB = jfdb:assign(DB, [path, to, b], #{b => <<"ok">>}).

Paths allow us to store hierarchical data. This is not unlike a file system which contains directories and files. We will soon see sub-dbs which are like directories, as opposed to the values we have been using, which are like files. Later when we look at indices, we will see that JFDB is not just like a file system, but rather a tagged file system.

If that didn’t make any sense, don’t worry, let’s just see what happens when we use paths:

> jfdb:lookup(DB, [path, to]).
[{<<"a">>,#{a => <<"ok">>}},
 {<<"b">>,#{b => <<"ok">>}}]

If we only care about whether or not a path exists in the db:

> true = jfdb:exists(DB, [path, to]).

We can remove full paths, or just the prefixes:

> DB = jfdb:remove(DB, [path, to]).
> false = jfdb:exists(DB, [path, to]).


What happens if we just look at the first component of our path? There’s no value there, so what do we get back? Well, we still get back an object, but for each key we get back a sub-db:

> [{<<"to">>, Sub}] = jfdb:lookup(DB, [path]).

For the most part, we can use the sub-db the same way we would use a db:

> jfdb:lookup(Sub, a).
#{a => <<"ok">>}
> jfdb:lookup(Sub, b).
#{b => <<"ok">>}

Indices and search

So far, so good, but the real raison d’être for JFDB is to support searching arbitrary properties of a (mutable) dataset. JFDB is not just an efficient way to store complex Erlang terms on disk, without any meaningful size limits. Using indices (which are keys / paths exactly like the primary keys we discussed above), you get fast, multi-dimensional access to your data. The indices are first class citizens in JFDB, which means they are atomically written together with the primary key and value. It also means indices get prefix compressed, just like primaries.

Creating indices is easy:

> DB = jfdb:assign(DB, k1, v1, [[time, a], [place, p1]]).
> DB = jfdb:assign(DB, k2, v2, [[time, b], [place, p1]]).
> DB = jfdb:assign(DB, k3, v3, [[time, a], [place, p2]]).

So is searching:

> jfdb:search(DB, [time, a]).
> jfdb:search(DB, {all, [[time, a], [place, p1]]}).
> jfdb:search(DB, {but, [{any, [[time, a], [time, b]]}, [place, p2]]}).

Notice how when searching, the returned items are not always in order. If you are searching for a single index key, the order is guaranteed. All bets are off when performing complex queries over multiple keys.

We can search prefix paths too. Another way to restate the last query we executed could be:

> jfdb:search(DB, {but, [time, [place, p2]]}).

That is ``has time but not place p2''.

In addition, we can use arbitrary prefixes, not just components of the path. For instance, let’s suppose we want to support text search on value:

> DB = jfdb:assign(DB, [some, path], #{first_name => <<"Jared">>, last_name => <<"Flatow">>}, [[word, <<"Jared">>], [word, <<"Flatow">>]]).

We invented the word keyspace for our text search so that it doesn’t interfere with any other keys we have. Now we can search a prefix, e.g. as a user types:

> jfdb:search(DB, {pre, [word, <<"Ja">>]}).
  #{first_name => <<"Jared">>,last_name => <<"Flatow">>}}]

One more thing worth knowing, is that we can list indices, not just primaries:

> jfdb:paths(DB, [], [indices]).

That second argument is a path. Remember, paths can mention prefixes:

> jfdb:paths(DB, {pre, [place, p]}, [indices]).

I mean it, they can always use prefixes:

> jfdb:lookup(DB, {pre, [some, path]}).
[{[],#{first_name => <<"Jared">>,last_name => <<"Flatow">>}}]

If you understand why that last example returned an item tuple and not just a value, then you are really grokking JFDB.

Flushing and crushing

If you want to ensure a write gets to disk, you have 3 options:

  1. Add the flush option to the write call, i.e. jfdb:assign(DB, Path, Val, Indices, [flush])

  2. Call flush on the db, i.e. jfdb:flush(DB)

  3. Call crush on the db, i.e. jfdb:crush(DB)

Unlike flush, crush will actually compact the db into a single level. This normally happens automatically, but you can do it manually, e.g. if you want to optimize for reading. For more information about what this means, see How does it work?.

How fast is it?

Well, that’s an impossible question, it depends on your use case. But here are some quick tests from the root directory of JFDB.

time test/jfdb test-db

That test uses the C API to write just over 10,000 values, and then find them. On my MacBook Pro I get ~20-30K writes per second. I can find up to 5M keys per second using a crushed DB.

Using the Erlang API:

time (cd erlang && test/jfdb erl-test-db assign 10000)
time (cd erlang && test/jfdb erl-test-db lookup 10000)

For me, that comes to ~5K writes per second, and ~20K reads per second.

All these tests use pretty trivial keys and values, and are actually doing stuff besides just reading and writing the values. They also don’t use any of the advanced features of JFDB. I’d love to see your benchmarks!

How does it work?

This is a work in progress, the authoritative answer to this is read the code. There are really only ~2500 lines of code in jfdb/src that do the bulk of the work. The fancy querying is mostly part of the Erlang bindings under erlang/c_src/jfdb_nif.c.

Essentially there are 2 files, .keys and .vals. The .keys file contains the tries (more detail to come). The .vals file contains bulk value data, allocated in blocks. Both files are mmapped.

Here are a couple of random notes on the Erlang bindings for now:

  • the nif has its own queue / thread, it will not block the scheduler

  • the resource uses < 4KB memory overhead per db

    • JFT_KEY_LIMIT defaults to 1KB, i.e. maximum of 1024 bytes per key. You can change the limit to match your data, the largest possible is 4KB. 256B is enough for most, 512B or 1KB is probably more than enough for anyone.

    • 2 key data buffers in Erlang bindings

    • 1 key data buffer in the core db

For more information on the "theory", take a look at this tech talk.

What’s next?

Maybe memory-only dbs and complex transactions. Also, possibly exposing the JFT objects (tries) directly to Erlang. These are related topics. More on this to come…​

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